News & Politics

Watch What They Do

Can we please start paying attention to the despicable things powerful people do, rather than the despicable things they say?
The furor seems to be intensifying, rather than dying out, over unscripted remarks by past and perhaps future Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott at a birthday party, hosted by the American Paleontology Society, for outgoing Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Conservatives and liberals alike are calling for Lott's head; White House support for what was until 10 days ago Bush's strongest Congressional ally has been tepid at best, with headlines like "Bush Stops Short of Calling for Lott to Resign." If Lott were a football coach, Bush would be giving him a vote of confidence for the rest of the year. A leadership battle looms.

The chattering classes can't get enough of analyzing Lott's unguarded words, words which have continued to drown out Lott's five (and counting) public apologies for them.

Enough, already.

Can we please start paying attention to the despicable things powerful people do, rather than the despicable things they say?

In a way, the pouncing on Lott's comments is understandable. Given the multiple layers of speechwriters and speech coaches and publicists and image consultants and hair stylists and makeup artists -- but then, isn't every politician a makeup artist? -- much of official Washington, and all of its corps of media stenographers, searches for authenticity the way a teenager parses new recording acts. Do they really mean it? Is it from the heart? Or is this just a cynical attempt to be popular? It's judgment based on style over substance.

And, so, as LottWatch 2002 slogs through its second week, punditry engages in the ridiculous game of opining as to which was more sincere -- Lott's words (his endorsement of segregationism), or Lott's words (his apologies for endorsing segregationism). It's an absurd waste of time, because only Trent Lott can answer that question -- and the answer is irrelevant.

What is important, in the case of Trent Lott and for every other person with influence -- elected or not -- is what they do, not what they say. Actually, that's a pretty good rule of thumb for people in their personal lives, too. But it's particularly helpful advice for assessing people in high political office, where whole careers are managed with the same sort of care and nuance, and considerably higher stakes, than Madison Avenue product rollouts.

Most people don't judge products by what their commercials claim (or, more frequently, whether the commercial implies your sex life will improve after purchase). We judge those products by what they do: how they perform, whether they offer features we like or need, friends' experiences with them, the price, and so forth. A catchy jingle or clever ad may help us remember the product or suggest how to think about it, but it's not the product.

Yet when it comes to people whose power can impact everyone’s lives, their words, scripted or not, generally get more attention than their deeds, and conflicts between the two are rarely examined. I'm inclined to take Lott's pro-segregationist comments at face value not because he's said similar things repeatedly in the past; he's also said racially inclusive things. Nor do I doubt the sincerity of his apologies because he has courted the support and received the plaudits of unapologetic bigots in the past; he has courted a whole lot of other people in 40 years of public life, too.

No, I doubt Trent Lott's diversity bona fides, and those of many Republican legislators on Capitol Hill, because of their consistent and relentless opposition to civil rights legislation and regulations; because of their appointment of judges hostile to civil rights remedies; because of their implementation of policies that consistently result in people of color having fewer educational opportunities, higher prison populations, fewer jobs, lower incomes, and less access to affordable health care or needed social services; because of repeated, unjustified purges of primarily African-American voters from voting rosters by Republican officials; because of many Republicans' willful insistence, against all evidence, that a country that ignores its unequal status quo is therefore "colorblind" and free of systemic racial inequalities.

None of that has a thing to do with Trent Lott's choice of words at a birthday party.

But then, in a world where one of the higher compliments given to an elected official is that he or she stays "on message," and where their every public appearance includes the goal of presenting themselves in the best possible light, politicians' actions are frequently at odds with their words, and those gaps are hardly confined to matters of race. Currently, George Bush is the reigning master of the art. Nary a day has gone by since 9/11 that we haven't been reminded by Dubya that we're fighting the War On Terror on behalf of something called freedom. Yet only yesterday, here was the U.N. human rights chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello, reporting in Helsinki that the War On Terror has been used by dozens of countries, including the United States and many of its allies, to curtail freedom and exacerbate bigotries.

Gaps between words and actions are also hardly confined to Republicans. Bill Clinton built his entire political career around his genius for saying one thing -- he called it "feeling our pain" -- and actually doing another thing -- inflicting the pain, almost always to the great benefit of Wall Street. Those who use this year's wave of corporate accounting scandals to bash deregulating Republicans were paying too much attention to Clinton's words; the fraudulent '90s bubble was not only on his watch, but largely of his doing. Clinton told us he was saving forests, then condemned them to clearcutting; promised to reform welfare, then abolished it; championed reproductive freedoms even as most of rural America lost them. Everyone remembered the words, not what actually happened when he acted.

The examples go on. Take Bush's tax cuts last year, given primarily to America's wealthiest people. We were told that they were needed in order to stimulate the economy. They didn't. Quite the opposite; now we're in even worse economic shape, and the lost government revenues are coming out of services to the poor, not the wealthy. It wasn't an economic stimulus at all -- it was a wealth transfer, from the have-nots to the haves. What's the response? Republicans are getting ready to do it all over again, with precisely the same rationale. When they do, how many pundits -- or anyone else -- will be as outraged as they've been over Lott's remarks?

Words are words: powerful, but never final. The actions, when they come, help or hurt real people with real lives. Lott's endorsement of white supremacy was offensive -- but it was also in the context of recalling a presidential race that happened 54 years ago. Almost everyone involved in that race is now dead.

So, too, are the record number of people Texas governor George Bush executed, before and during his rise to prominence as a "compassionate conservative." That phrase was a fundamental misrepresentation of how he and his team have governed. His record as governor -- including the cavalier executions -- was not.

Today, Bush's marketers don't use the once-famous phrase a lot. They've moved on to subsequent marketing campaigns. As with consumer products, politicians regularly freshen their public image: new campaigns, new slogans, new issues. Words come and go. Pay attention to what they do.

Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange.
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